“wild in the streets” as political satire, prescient black comedy, and good old b-movie hokum (part 1)

This piece was written for my other site, ratherrarerecords.com, where it ties in with several previously published articles on that blog. But it just got so dimmed political that I thought I would post it both there and here . . .

Several readers suggested that I follow up the post “the return of max frost & the troopers” with a brief say-so on the American International Pictures (AIP) movie Wild In The Streets. So, I pulled a DVD from the library and watched it for the first time in more than twenty years. First, here is brief synopsis of the movie’s basic plot. The four indented paragraphs that follow are adapted from the entry for the movie Wild In The Streets on Wikipedia:

“The storyline was a projection of contemporary issues taken to extremes (speculative fiction meets black humor), played out poignantly during 1968. That was an election year with many controversies, including but certainly not limited to Vietnam and the draft, civil rights and ghetto riots, and the rights of individuals to control their own consciousnesses.

Christopher Jones stars as rock singer and aspiring revolutionary Max Frost (born Max Jacob Flatow, Jr., which certainly appears to be Jewish, which would be another part of the film’s humor, as Max is then destined to become the first Jewish US President); his first public act of violence was blowing up his family’s new car—hardly the foundation for political activism. Throughout the film, Max’s level of political awareness and militancy is sophomoric—although he does make several astute observations, some of which I quote below.

Kennedyesque candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook), who is running on a platform to lower the voting age from 21 to 18—which was a genuine issue in 1968 (“If I’m old enough to die for my country, I’m old enough to drink and vote!”) and was made law in 1971—asks Max to appear at a rally in his support. Max stuns everyone by calling for the voting age to be lowered to 14, and then calls for a nationwide demonstration in his support! Within 24 hours, protests have begun around the country.

Frost agrees to campaign for the candidate with a slightly elevated voting age as his slogan and Fergus wins by a landslide. Through Max’s machinations, the voting age is lowered to 14 and the pop star’s popularity soars, making him a viable candidate for President, to which he is elected (as a Republican, which is part of the movie’s humor). And then, as Captain Beefheart said, he stuck out his tongue and the fun begun.”

The movie’s script was based on the short story “The Day it All Happened, Baby!” by Robert Thom, which was published in the December 1966 issue of Esquire magazine. Thom expanded the story to a movie script for director Barry Shears. He expanded it even more to novel-length and it was published as Wild In The Streets by Pyramid Books as a tie-in with the movie.

Wild In The Streets was released in the US on May 29, 1968, several weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4) and several weeks before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (June 6).

Believe it or not, Wild In The Streets was nominated for an Academy Award for Film Editing by Fred Feitshans and Eve Newman. It lost out to Frank Keller’s work on the Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt.

According to filmmaker Kenneth Bowser, the part of Max Frost was first offered to folk-singer Phil Ochs, who turned it down . . .


We pour napalm on our own men!

This lengthy section (“We pour napalm”) contains my observations and ruminations based on notes that I took while watching Wild In The Streets last week. I had presumed that my reaction to the movie would be one of easy dismissal; that was based on viewing the video of Christopher Jones lip-synching his way through Shape Of Things To Come on YouTube for the earlier post on Max Frost & The Troopers.

My actual reaction was very different: I was impressed by the basic intelligence of the script and its politically and socially savvy observations and the humor, which ranged from sophomoric to ironic to dark. Sure, it’s a B-movie, so the acting of Jones and his acolytes/band members is less than stellar, and Shelley Winters as Max’s mother Mrs. Flatow is so over-the-top as to be beyond caricature. But they are ably supported by Holbrook and the rest of the cast, notably veterans Ed Begley, Millie Perkins, and television stalwart Kevin Coughlin, along with the screen debut of Richard Pryor.

Unlike most AIP properties, Wild In The Streets attracted several cameo appearances by such non-actor celebrities as entertainment columnist Army Archerd, attorney Melvin Belli, actress/author Pamela Mason, and journalist Walter Winchell. Record industry mover and shaker and all-around industry legend Dick Clark, straight-facedly plays a radio broadcaster.

There were also some fresh faces making early appearances: the teenaged Max was played by Barry Williams years before anyone had (or could) conceive of The Brady Bunch. An uncredited Bobby Sherman plays a journalist who briefly interviews President Frost. Child star Bill Mumy plays an unidentified child.

Monkee Peter Tork is part of a crowd scene when he bumps up against Shelley Winters at a stage entrance as the on-lookers chant, “We want Max!”

To break up the mass of text in this section, I have added several bulleted sub-headings in italics. I have left them in plain (non-bold) type to differentiate them from the more important sub-headings, which are also italicized in bold print (like the “napalm” heading above).

Firing on a crowd of demonstrators was unthinkable

Wild In The Streets was somewhat prescient in foreseeing that certain political and social events and movements would both continue and escalate in size and intensity. For example, a peek into the near future is the big demonstration that occurs in Washington, DC, which has a crowd of more than 3,000,000! In 1968, no political demonstration anywhere in the US had ever reached much more than 100,000.

This would change with the Moratorium March on Washington on November 15, 1969, that drew more than 500,000 people to protest President Nixon’s continued bombing of Vietnam. Oldsters will recall that Tricky Dick had been elected in 1968 because he claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war. This plan included expanding the Vietnam War into a Southeast Asian War by bombing and invading Cambodia and Laos (we had been sending Air Force excursions into Thailand for years).

The “Southeast Asian War” is an accurate term for our mass murders of millions of civilians in that part of the world. Unfortunately, it never caught on, probably because the mainstream media—the most likely source for popularizing a new political buzzword—was too busy lying about the whole war (or “police action”) in its ongoing protection of the military industrial complex and its most visible manifestation, the US government.

At the movie’s demonstration (some of it actual news footage, some of it movie crowd scenes), a television newsman notes the building intensity in the crowd and in the police and states, “The military and police are helpless unless directed to fire on the crowd—and that seems unthinkable.”

Wild In The Streets was conceived and produced well in advance of the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 28, 1968. There, police officers were witnessed, photographed, and filmed beating demonstrators, observers, and even members of the media! Now, cops beating mostly black civil rights demonstrators in the South was nothing new; cops beating mostly white crowds in the North for any reason was almost unheard of.

Cops firing into a crowd of mostly white people at the time this movie was made was unheard of! (Or, as Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable!”) Two years later that would change: on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire in concert and on orders on both student demonstrators and non-participating students alike at an anti-war rally on the campus grounds of Kent State University.

In the movie, after the newsman makes his “unthinkable” statement, individual police officers open fire—not in concert, but in the heat of the moment—with their handguns, killing several people.

Comments, suggestions, additions, and arguments welcome!